Thursday 25 September 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #21

After my language class, for three months from November through to the end of January I picked up the S7 to Ahrensfelde at Alexanderplatz. The first week I ‘plakateered’ after the lesson, and once there was a delay on the tracks. Every other time however, I got on the train at exactly 21:47. Though I would bemoan the lack of trains running through Berlin (if I missed the 21:47 I would have to wait twenty minutes until the next one came) the efficiency and reliability of the system is striking and would have gone largely unnoticed by me if it wasn’t for my evening lessons. It enabled me to time my routine to a T. 

Yearning for bed, after tidying up the classrooms I would shuffle down the stairwell in my giant Easter-duck puffa-jacket laden with 6 or 7 small plastics bags of rubbish. Out into the frozen car park I would gingerly walk across the slippery tarmac and chuck the bags into a high skip at the back of the building. I would turn back into the building and pass the grumpy night-watchman at reception. Back in the cold on the other side I would light a cigarette. I would then check my phone for the time - always between 9.30 and 9.35. Through snow and a bitter wind I would walk to Alexanderplatz station and then finish the cigarette in a little alcove, using a little groove in the wall as an ashtray, collecting a week’s worth of my after-lesson cigarettes, until someone cleared it out at the weekend. For the first couple of Thursdays I would treat myself to a little baguette from a friendly lad at the kiosk on the platform which at this time were on ‘Angebote’ and sold for 1€ or so. I had to forego this treat as my budget began to tighten once more. I would stamp my feet and pace the platform for a couple of minutes, still thinking of bed. And then the train would come.   

There was a man I saw each day on this trip who knew the ins and outs of the train times much better than I. This man was a bottle collector and looked very similar to my dear teacher Gunther, and I wouldn’t put it past the loopy teacher to be subsidising his salary by collecting ‘Pfand’ in the evenings. Pfand is the money you receive from supermarkets and some bars by in exchange certain (but most) glass and plastic bottles. The Pfand system nicely complements the throngs in Berlin – both vagrants and punters – drinking beers on the streets each day. You will never see a bottle lying forlorn on the side of the pavement for long. Indeed, whenever you stand one of your own that you have finished next to a bin it is only a matter of moments before someone shuffles forward and scoops it up. The collector would have likely been watching you with hawkish eyes as they waited for you to finish. Some will feign indifference, but most will come up and ask you if they can take it while you are still drinking, and Turkish women will send their children.  

Of course, the person who takes your bottle away may well have simply been someone on their way back from work, who saw an empty bottle and being a thrifty individual knew that it is only so many 2cence pieces that make up a euro. For it is a bustling system that almost everyone in Berlin is active in, whether in drinking the beer or collecting the bottles. Standing at a station waiting for a train I often saw smart looking middle aged gents with greying hair and serious expressions spying an empty bottle of Sternie on a platform bench. They will march up to it, vigorously shake out the last drips into a bin and then place it carefully into a bag, perhaps clinking next to others he has already collected. For these types, who wore tailed suits and shining shoes, I wondered whether it was a German magnetism to order that led them to taking part; a sense of tidiness, or repugnance of waste. Or perhaps, once you start, there is a sort of thrill in watching you crate back home fill up with bottles until it is ready to be taken down to the shops.  

There are the more pathetic types though. Regularly you see old ladies looking like your own grandmother back at home, peddling along the streets with a little torch in their hand no bigger than a lighter, peering into bins, sticking their arms into their ashen, gaping mouths and feeling around for what the torch can’t reveal. Then there are the pros who warrant admiration not pity. Everyone is a scavenger of some sort in Berlin, right down to the sparrows that hop towards you with their beaks held wide open, but some of these Pfand collectors were the most impressive of the lot, walking down the street at the end of the day with two large IKEA bags brimming with plastic bottles, or a supermarket trolley full of clinking beer bottles.  

The man I saw on the train each evening would race down each cabin, his eyes darting over and under each seat, down to each corner of the carriage and at the hands of each passenger’s hands to see what he can find. So engrossed in his work he was, unless someone directly handed him a bottle, his eyes didn’t meet any of ours. Though I would have seen him around 70 times that winter, if I had one day handed him a bottle and his eyes had come up to mine while he bobbed his head in thanks, I don’t think he would have ever recognised me. Most days he would be wearing Nike tracksuit bottoms that were a little too small for him revealing his socked ankles; white trainers and a faded and scraggly wax cotton hunting jacket. Two bags of bottles would be slung over his shoulder. He was fast, nipping in and out of each carriage as the train came to a halt at each station. Before the train stopped he would have a moment of respite, breathing heavily, as he waited by the doors, his thumb poised over the button to press for them to open. For some reason it greatly cheered me to see him each evening, though I sorry he had to work so hard. While I was at this point close to bed, I wondered how late he would be travelling back and forth on the S-Bahn. How long had he been doing it for? How much did he make? Were his family out doing it too? At Raoul-Wallenbergstraße I would get out and so would he, rushing across the platform to the waiting S7 going back to Alexanderplatz and beyond that to Zoologisher Garten, and then to Wannsee. He had to race across the platform to go through the doors of the other train before they flashed red and closed. If he didn’t make it that would mean waiting 20 minutes at Raoul-Wallenbergstraße for the next one. A delay in the trains would be much bigger inconvenience for him than for me. Thankfully, us being in Germany, such a thing was a rarity. It really is a wonderful system: the efficiency of Germans complementing the indulgence of Berliners.  


The stiff stuttering lock clicked open and into the hall I walked. Compared to the bitter chill outside, the heat when entering the flat when I finally arrived home was almost stifling. The small hallway was dark and full of that now familiar smell of stale smoke and rabbit bedding and muck. Taking my headphones off I hear voices in the sitting room. When Mila was out the door to the sitting room was closed meaning that it was pitch black in the hall and I would have to stumble through the darkness to find the door knob. When visitors came and left the door open, the little rabbit would make a dash for freedom. Everyone present was then called away from whatever activity they were embarked upon, armed with broom, or frying pan, or curtain rail to extract the deaf rabbit from the depths under Red’s bed.  

In the darkness I heard Red’s voice calling my name. I found my way to the living room door passed reeking bin bags and piles of trash thrown out of Red’s bedroom and into the sitting room. In the sitting room it was cooler, one window open to release the smoke form cigarette and joint that hovered in the air. The television was on and jabberings, some brightly-coloured German entertainment show. Both girls were on the sofa: Smokie smiled up at me, looking tired but sweet and warmly glowing in a hoody and big, Indian yoga trousers. Red had a slightly cynical expression on her face and she eyed me coming into the room, completely at odds with her high-pitched call to me. She smiled too though, slightly, and barked at me, ‘We have food here. But we have started without you.’  

On the table in front of them, amongst mountaining ashtrays, candles, kinder egg treasures that Red’s mother collected for us and Red’s own glass tea pot sat on three glass cups with candles inside. The pot was always full with luminous fruit tea, but was rarely warm.  Amongst it now were dishes of chicken, cheese, avocado, and salad, tomato and source and black beans. This table was never tidy and never clean, and thinking back on my time in that flat, after Red and Smokie themselves, it is this table littered with Red’s delicacies and accoutrements to life that comes to mind first. 

Red told me that I should put two wraps into the oven. When she saw me faffing around with the wrong nobs she came in and threw them in herself. I poured myself a glass of wine and offered some to Smokie who already had a tall glass of Sekt. There was one opposite Red as well, but this was untouched as she sipped on her tea. She asked me,   

‘How was your day, honey?’ 

‘Long and hard. I started doing more marketing today-‘ 

‘O I think your wraps are ready already. You work too much, honey. You know how to do it? If you want more avocado we have more avocado. Und kannst du …. die ….’ 

I feasted on the food sitting on the ground at the table. ‘This is so nice of you both. Every night you are doing this for me. I feel I should-‘ 

‘Oh but I told you both when I first met you that I always make too much food. That is just what I have always done. Ask Henri.’ 

And so I ate and drank, while they drunk and smoked, and then I smoked too and ate some more before Red brought Bumblebee and Calimero out and tipped the contents of the salad bowls onto the floor for them to tuck into.  

‘You work too much Bertie. I think one day you will make a heart attack for yourself.  

I was aware that I had a tendency to overwork in Liverpool; not necessarily with corresponding success or a plethora or results, but simply because I found sitting and doing nothing hard. I could enjoy on one level, but there was always a persuasive and unrelenting little voice inside me that said I should be doing such constructive, whether it was reading, writing, learning a language, anything… In Berlin I came to see that lot of people didn’t work people were always sitting about in cafés and bars, not only young expats like myself, but Turkish men, young and old, drinking coffees and tea from small cups outside Späties, and bakeries, smoking and talking; vagrants in parks and hipsters balancing on their bikes.  

Berlin is of course cheap, and the students I met seemed to live like kings. Those unemployed (whether they were from Germany or not) could take advantage of the generous arbeitsloss geld after having worked for a bit. I had always derided the fears of ‘benefit tourism’ within the EU, that David Cameron and UKIP are always warning against. Yet here I was witnessing it. No doubt, I am sure, that the majority who took this money came with the intention to work, and undoubtedly had worked, but their choice to go unemployed to work on their own ‘projects’ made me uneasy. I thought: You find a way to make your art, around your life, that is part of its struggle, and you take from life what you can, you take for the drone of the office, somehow, a drive to create your art. But you have to tackle that life, and come out the other side of it. If it is worth it, it will prevail. We are not working 18 hour shifts in sweat shops, after all. A Mozart or James Joyce in Berlin will be a Mozart or James Joyce no matter what. Don’t take money to create shit art. So many artists, so little art, people always say, and they have a point.   

Maybe I am being too harsh. And maybe if it wasn’t the way it was, much of the creativity and activities infuse Berlin, wouldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for the officially unemployed and their projects.

Every young expat in Berlin should have a project on the go. In Berlin a ‘project’ is what you call the bits of work you do that you want to do. It is creative, and can be seen as the little steps towards the career you want to have. Something like painting, comedy, writing; making jewellery, recording a CD, directing a short. A lot of people have a handful of part-time jobs and in the time that is left they run music nights, or a comedy show, or help put on Shakespeare for children. These projects are undoubtedly are a big part of making this city what it is. They also, of course, give value to the lives of those carrying them out. It gives more meaning to getting drunk on cheap beer in parks, getting fucked on drugs and dancing from Friday until Monday. It is the possibility to do these projects while at the same time extending the party lifestyle of a student that makes this the best city to live in. This ease of living keeps the trains running quite at rush hour, and the number of suits down. It keeps the parks bustling and events popping up. Berlin without these people, and their shit art, wouldn’t be the place we all love. This great big playground, where anything goes, as everything comes.  

How much each person works upon these little projects of theirs of course varies from case to case. ‘No one has ambition here’ an ex-pat friend of mine who had lived in the city for almost a decade said to me. ‘And that is more exhausting than the relentless rush of places like London or New York.’  

Indeed, I was to find that when the language school and winter began to thaw, my energy to work – to produce, to create, to better myself – flailed against everything else I wanted to do. My former diligence evaporated while I whiled away hours in the park.  

Of course, some people are busting a gut here. There are plenty of expats in Berlin (you understood, I am as always, principally talking about just that particular wedge of Berlin – excuse my limited range of vision) who are working much harder than they are playing. Not everyone loves it. Not everyone feels like a king here. Not everyone can keep happy when poor. A young blonde musician I met here (seemingly a perfect candidate for the Berlin scene) had hated his first year here, he said. He had been doing an internship at the company while at the same time completing his thesis. He would work around the clock at the office getting by and taking speed in the toilets. He had been miserable in the city he said, he didn’t know anyone. He had no friends. He was always tired, and almost killed himself with the stress of living. ‘I didn’t like Berlin for at least a year and a half.’ Another time, he looked back with dreamy nostalgic eye on his first months in Berlin, taking MDMA and dancing to 90s music.  

Speaking to CP one evening, I got another story of the move to Berlin.

‘‘What are you doing in Berlin?’ My friends ask me. ‘Surviving’, I tell them.’ There was much of the daredevil lone wolf about him that I envied. In my free time I yawned on the S7 to Marzahn reading Anna Karenina; watched Buffy die Vampire Jagerin and ate kinder eggs. I would look at my bulbous, fuddy reflection in the doors of the S-Bahn and sneer at myself.  

CP had a mystery to him though. He spoke beautifully, the cantor of his voice rolled like hills, and the words fell from his mouth preceded but sometimes stumbling over one another; strong, and elegant words, that fell backwards into the world, occasionally rising to a pitch that had them pirouetting in the air for a moment, before spinning down into the wind. 

‘I have always just had enough for tobacco and drink and food,’ he told me. ‘And as long as you have friends who can help you out with 50€ for the rent now and then you will be OK. It is all worth it to be here.’  

The highs and lows of that first winter in Berlin weren’t as dramatic as theirs. My life however did reach a fairly comfortable medium. Despite being cold and poor, things began looking up. To my surprise, around the hours I was spending at the office and the language school, and all in between, I managed to make room for enjoyment and relaxation and indulgence. The grind, through habit, became less relentless. Coming home after class, some nights Red would be celebrating something and I would stay up and do cherry shots with her, and Smokie, and one of her guys. And it would often turn out that I would be the last one awake, drinking and smoking and laughing until the end.

Other nights, only the girls would be home, or more often only Red. After struggling back to the warm flat following a hellish long day I would pour whatever alcohol I could find into a glass, throw myself into more comfortable clothes, and then fall into the comfortable half egg shaped chair in our flat. Red would pass me her joint and I would slumber as she told me about the television shows she was watching and her latest drama. I wouldn’t have to understood or respond for us both to be utterly content. Sometimes she would cajole me into playing a board game or Pairs with her, which she called ‘Memory.’ She was particularly good at this where as I, to my shock, found that I was terrible, and got concerned that my brain power was dissolving. As a child I was a champion at this game but couldn’t remember where any of the cards were further back than one turn no matter how I tried. Red would either cackle with glee or shake her head as if she was generally disappointed in me, depending upon the extent of my folly. Soon – though always later than I expected, and far later than I wished – these tourneys would come to an end, and we would descend on to sofa. She would roll more spliffs, and I would munch away at whatever was to be found on the table. Sometimes Red would fall back to her secret cupboard in the kitchen and reveal a packet of three year old chocolate. ‘My favourite!’ she would announce and lay them down on the table. I rolled another cigarette, and as expected, the smoke went fantastically with the chocolate.  

As I got more high my hand would stretch to them in quicker and quicker succession. Once I went too far and she snapped: 

‘Enjoying them are you? They are my favourite, you know? 

A shame and fear rose up into my face and I was concerned that I had ruined it all and wouldn’t now be able to enjoy anything. But the angst thankfully subsided, as did my greed, and slipped back into contentedness. I could enjoy the memory of the chocolate at least. I stayed my hand and let her pick at them now and then. I poured myself some more Pink Sekt, and enjoyed the taste of that. I reclined in the chair and rolled another cigarette. Red would eventually go to her room and leave me there with the duty of catching Milla and putting her to bed.  

And who will put me to bed? 

I light another cigarette and don’t think about it.   

Bertie Digby Alexaner
Berlin 2014

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